Betteshanger coal miner celebrates centenary

Sam Robinson
Image caption Sam Robinson was working down the mines by the age of 14

Former miner Sam Robinson was born the same year as the first coal was produced from the Kent coalfield - 100 years ago.

It was produced at the Snowdown colliery on 19 November 1912 with Betteshanger pit being the last in Kent to close in 1989.

By the age of 14, Sam was already working underground with the pit ponies in Rotherham in Yorkshire, but following the 1926 miners' strike, his family were forced to move south as his father searched for work.

"We came down and just got a job," said Mr Robinson, who was soon at work in the newly opened Betteshanger mine.

In 1926 many of the striking pit workers had been blacklisted and so could not return to work at their home collieries.

Many of Kent's miners had walked or cycled to the county from the north of England, Scotland and Wales.

The promise of work and good new housing prompted about 1,500 miners to make the journey south.

"Going from a colliery district to a colliery district, it was just like normal," Mr Robinson said.

'Just in pants'

The Kent mines were known for being very hot which earned them the nickname "Dante's inferno".

Mr Robinson described how, when he first went down the pits, he worked by candlelight wearing just his underpants.

Image caption The 1984 strike saw confrontations between miners and police at Betteshanger

"I used to be a pony driver with little ponies in the pit pulling the tubs [coal wagons] up and down - the empties and the full ones, " Mr Robinson recalled from his days underground.

While the miners at Betteshanger lived in purpose-built homes at Mill Hill outside Deal, the pit deputies lived in newly constructed Betteshanger village next to the mine.

For Mr Robinson and his family, living in a new house with an indoor toilet was a new experience.

"They were lovely. I'd never been in anything like it before. It was the first time I'd had a bath in the house, in a bathroom upstairs."

Unwashed walk home

Before the installation of pit head baths in 1934, the miners, covered in soot, were shunned by Deal residents as they walked home.

"The local people, the 'cherry pickers' as they were known, used to walk on one side of the road and the miners used to walk on the other side of the road of Deal town."

Some shops displayed signs saying "no dogs or miners" and butchers sold the pit workers cheaper cuts of meat.

"I did some many years as a collier, that was as high up as I could get at the coal face and still produce coal," Mr Robinson said.

He retired at the age of 65 and in spite of more than half a century breathing in coal dust underground, celebrated his 100th birthday in June.

Whippet racing

Snowdown pit, which originally had Welsh owners, attracted miners from the South Wales coalfield, whereas Betteshanger drew those from Yorkshire.

Both pit villages reflected their residents' origins. Many of the villagers of Snowdown still have quite pronounced Welsh accents. The legacy of the Yorkshiremen in Betteshanger can be seen from the air.

The houses were built round a central circle, which was used as a greyhound and whippet racing track by the residents.

Aylesham was built in the shape of a pit wheel, with spokes radiating from a central green.

In 1984 a 54-week strike by miners began with the workers at Betteshanger among the most militant in the country. They were the last to return to work in 1985, but the pit was closed in 1989.

The sense of community is still strong in the Kent mining area, and an annual Miners' Festival takes place in Aylesham with brass bands, choirs and boxing displays.

Mr Robinson now lives in a nursing home in Walmer. His daughter still lives in the mining area of Mill Hill in Deal.

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